Pollen from Medieval Cesspits Reveal Medieval Diet

Pollen types that are frequently found in medieval and post-medieval cesspits: chervil (a), starflower (b), myrtle family (c), lungwort (d), gum rockrose (e), cluster of chervil (f). (Photo: RBINS)
19/08/2016
Pollen from Medieval Cesspits Reveal Medieval Diet
post by
Reinout Verbeke

Between 1100 and 1700, the menu of the ‘Belgians’ mostly consisted of cereal products and occasionally some exotic ingredients, like honey from Spain or cloves from Indonesia. Researcher Koen Deforce (RBINS) analysed pollen that were collected in ancient Flemish cesspits.

Paintings or written sources can partially reveal what people used to eat, but there is nothing like direct, physical evidence. Research based on seeds and fruits found in old cesspits is not new, but there is also smaller material to look at. Paleobiologist Koen Deforce examined pollen retrieved from human faecal remains, collected in ancient cesspits. The samples are from different sites in Flanders and date back to the period between the 12th and the 17th century.

Pollen grains were probably never on the menu – as was the case in the diet of native Americans – but it did appear on vegetables. Even after the flower has withered, pollen grains remain on the plant. It is hard to get rid of pollen: the resistent pollen wall is not affected by our digestion process, and can be identified centuries later.

Main dish

Deforce notes that cereals, like today, formed the basis of our diet during the Middle Ages. They were processed in products like bread, porridge and beer. This also explains for the large amounts of pollen from typical arable weeds like cornflower, corn-cockle and white lace flower that were found in the samples. Peas and beans were also part of the general menu. Furthermore, Deforce identified chervil – very popular at the time –, beet/chard and spinaches. Buckwheat only became popular in the 16th century, the cesspit analyses revealed.

Spanish honey

A remarkable observation is that in the period between 1100 and 1700, flowers and flower buds were a common ingredient: borage or starflower, caper and also clove, which arrived here from Indonesia through trading. The flower buds of the elder and the common broom were pickled and consumed as a local substitute for the Mediterranean capers.  

Sugar was rare and extremely expensive during the Middle Ages, which made honey the common sweetener. Honey contains high numbers of pollen, which was dropped there by bees. That is why Deforce found so much pollen from typical ‘bee plants’ like ivy, linden and clover in the waste samples. He also found pollen from Mediterranean plant species that were pollinated by bees, which indicates that southern European honey was also on the menu.

Healing powers

In the Middle ages, people started planting lungwort as a medicine against lung diseases. Deforce also found those pollen in cesspits. Herb of grace, also a medicine, was found in large quantities in a 16th-century cesspit in Dendermonde.

Deforce found traces of peat, a commonly used source of fuel between the 12th and 15th century that was imported en masse. People covered their cesspits with ashes, to block odours and avoid flies.

“Interpreting pollen recovered from ancient cesspits is not always easy,” Koen Deforce says. “People used to throw all sorts of stuff in their toilet: kitchen waste, manure, textile and moss – the last two were the toilet paper of the time – and there is also pollen on that material.” One more appetizing detail: in every cesspit Deforce analysed, he found the eggs of whipworm and Ascaris, a roundworm – two common parasitic worms in humans at the time.

Results of the research project were published in Quaternary International.   

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